When he was a boy growing up in Nottingham, England, Andrew Gower couldn’t afford to buy all the video games he wanted to play. Instead of grumbling, he gathered. A prodigy programmer, Gower created his own versions of the most popular games, compiled from clues printed in text and image on the pages of video game magazines. Gower’s opinion lemmings—the 1991 Amiga game developed by DMA Design six years before the studio was created Grand Theft Autowas his masterpiece. “I was proud of that game,” he says. “It was the first [computer game] I made sure it didn’t look like it was put together by a kid.”
Gower would grow up to be, along with his brothers Paul and Ian, the co-founders of Jagex Games Studio and creators of the flagship title RuneScape. It is one of the longest-running Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOG), in which players collectively explore the Internet in a fantasy world that, like Facebook, continues to rumble and function even if an individual logs out.
Launched in 2001, the earliest version of the game was more like a fantasy-themed version of The Sims. Characters were viewed from a divine camera, looking down on the action from an isometric perspective. RuneScape is set in the world of Gielinor, where gods roam among men. The game eschews a linear storyline, allowing players to set their own goals and objectives. Now in its third iteration (the base game was replaced by a new version in both 2004 and 2013, each of which improved the graphics and revised the underlying code base), RuneScape has reached an enviable milestone in the fickle world of MMOs: 15 years old.
To mark the remarkable birthday, RuneScapeThe developers of ‘s have made a documentary for the occasion, the rather clear title, RuneScape – 15 years of adventure. The grandiose stat swing that the film introduces should, as with any piece of rosy propaganda, be viewed with a pinch of skepticism. It’s true that with 245 million registered accounts, the game’s population is more than three times that of Britain (a figure that also RuneScape as the fifth largest country in the world by population). But this fact, so eagerly told in the documentary, is just a theoretical population. There are usually fewer than 100,000 players online at a time.
For comparison RuneScapehis rival, World of Warcraft, accounting for 62 percent of the global subscription-based video game market in 2008. Blizzard no longer discloses its game’s active subscriber count, which has been bleeding players for years, but the most recent official figure from last year is still a hefty 5, 5 million. In contrast, the most recent official figure is for RuneScape‘s paying subscribers, published nearly a decade ago, was about a million.
However, one award cannot be questioned: RuneScape has been around for over a decade where few multiplayer online games have survived. Since the first 3D virtual worlds launched in the mid-1990s, more than 50 have closed due to dwindling populations. Some, like Lego Universe, lasted only two years (it closed in 2012). That game’s servers were shut down without any ceremony. Other developers provided a proper departure to their beloved world, making the termination a formal conclusion to the game’s fiction.
When Star Wars Galaxies closed in 2011, for instance, the developers showed off an extravagant fireworks display, lending a sense of occasion to the game’s lingering population that has held up over its eight tumultuous years. RuneScape has persisted in one form or another since 2001. Originally a free download at a time when the elbow-y term “free-to-play” had yet to be coined, it quickly grew and held its audience with weekly updates. It even once earned a Guinness World Record for “Most Updated Game.”
In a sense the RuneScape documentary is a kind of high-production corporate video, which outlines the history of the company and focuses on glowing testimonials from apparently happy employees and dewy-eyed customers. “Into the community RuneScape is perhaps the warmest community in gaming,” says someone. At first it’s not entirely clear who the film was made for. But if you look at the parents of the boys Gower, Gill and Chris, they reminisce about the early Dungeons and Dragons, hold Paul’s chalk drawings of castles and knights (who had adventures that corresponded to the family’s outings) to the camera, and remember Andrew’s obvious early programming talent: “He disliked being disturbed so much that he invented a program called ‘Intruder Alert’ when someone entered the room’ – it’s easy to get swept up in the nostalgia.